The appeal of [title of show], the tiny Off-Off phenomenon that has now moved up, via Off-Broadway, to become an enthusiastically received new Broadway show, lies in its simple sweetness. Everybody loves a love story, and when you look past all the seemingly convoluted metaphysics of watching a new musical about two guys writing a new musical and getting two gals to help them put it on, starring the two guys who wrote it as the two guys writing it, with songs about what the songs should be about and book scenes about how the scenes should be written—once you look past all that, as I say, you have a very simple love story. They, the two guys and the two gals, love you, the audience, and they desperately want you to love them back. And, bless them, they’re determined to hang in there, finding new and ingenious ways to express their love, until you do. Like Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls, they’re telling you they’re not going. And you know how effective that can be.
Artists in many fields, including the theater, have navigated the tricky byways of this structuralist approach to build art that’s purely about itself, but few have bothered to do so with love in their hearts. And love, art’s necessary ingredient, is the only thing that can keep this mode of self-contemplation from infuriating an audience. Consider Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which concerns the adventures of “you,” the reader, trying to find the second chapter of a “misbound” book; “you” end up instead with the first chapters of 10 entirely unrelated novels. I’ve come to love the combination of warmth and sly wit in Calvino’s work, just as I love [title of show], but my walls at home contain several dents, marking the spots where I threw it in fury on first reading.
If anything, the musical frees you from your initial annoyance faster, because you’re in such pleasant company. Reading a novel, you’re stuck with yourself and the narrator; [title of show] not only gives you four new people to meet, but cannily exploits their contrasting personalities to show you that each is gifted—and appealing—in his or her own way. Sharp-featured Susan Blackwell’s sardonic line readings suggest a stereotypically barbed personality until Hunter Bell’s book lets her reveal the compassion and wisdom behind the barbs, as well as the frustration that aims them. Heidi Blickenstaff’s cheery, buxom-barmaid persona (Frans Hals would be happy) is enhanced by the big, round vocal tones that Jeff Bowen’s music allows her to unpack, conveying a passion well beyond simple ingenue cheeriness.
Bowen himself, superficially the soft-spoken, self-effacing cute guy you might spot in a shadowy corner of some gay bar (both men are openly gay, a quality kidded on equal terms with every other aspect of the show), gets from the script a supply of caustic point-killer remarks that give his low-key presence an unexpectedly dangerous edge. And Bell, who suggests a daydreamy, wide-eyed, gay Tom Sawyer fantasizing about Broadway stardom as he lolls under a tree in some small town, wrote the text that gives all three of his colleagues the pointed remarks with which to puncture the loopy lapses into fantasy that he writes for himself.
Obviously, something creative is being constructed while this deconstructive party game rolls on—[title of show] is never literally a step-by-step demonstration of how two guys write and put on a musical. The authors are not documentarians, and they have much more fun in mind than that. Each scene is actually a diversion, like a revue sketch that has lying behind it some actual problem that young theater people face. In this, the show has analogies to youth-created revues of the past (compare the opening number of New Faces of 1952, in which the cast introduces itself, to [title of show]‘s “Two Nobodies in New York”), and to the works of Comden and Green, which often deal with brash young artists struggling to get a break—their screenplay for The Band Wagon, which purports to be about the making of a successful Broadway revue, functions at exactly the same distance from the way things are actually done as [title of show] does. The show’s newness, in other words, is utterly and deliciously traditional.
Unlike earlier new-kids-on-the-block shows, this one never offers its characters a motive beyond Broadway success and celebrity. In earlier times, people paid at least lip service to the idea that a kid’s reason for going into the hard-knock biz should involve something a little classier than just ego, fame, and money, like the art of the theater or the joy and meaning it brings audiences. Yet this, in a sense, isn’t the authors’ fault: If, in their minds, artistic achievement is equated with winning awards and being able to score VIP tickets to Wicked, they’re working in a time when society has let most other measures of success in the arts slip its mind. You, dear audience whose love they crave, make the world in which they send out their plea.
And like all genuine artists, [title of show]‘s makers have an element of defiance in their soul, as they prove with the battle hymn that sends their hypothetical show-within-a-show into performance: “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing/ Than a hundred people’s ninth-favorite thing.” Off-Broadway, this number seemed a standard-issue piece of downtown attitude, exactly what you’d expect people to sing in a nonprofit basement east of Union Square. On Broadway, the song seems—is—an act of bravery. The goal of most Broadway musicals, though largely unspoken, is an enforced unanimity of response. A Broadway musical that tells the audience, in effect, “We don’t insist that all of you like us, as long as some of you really love us,” is truly putting its money where its mouth is. To which the critic, for whom the size of a show’s grosses are irrelevant, can only say “Bravo” for the four brave kids who sing the song and their fifth (unseen) partner, Michael Berresse, who stages the show with a canniness—and love—to match its writing.